Lelyveld on Writing About Gandhi
New York Times (blog)
In a talk hosted by India Ink and Caravan Magazine last month, Joseph Lelyveld, author of “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India,” spoke with Ananya Vajpeyi, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, about the inspiration behind his book and how he researched his study of one of the 20th century’s most written about men.
Gandhi was “a tough nut to crack,” Mr. Lelyveld said.
“I thought the book might be controversial because here is a foreigner lecturing Indians on what Gandhi might have meant for India, and telling them that India had disappointed the father of the nation,” he said.
Mr. Lelyveld may be a foreigner but he is no stranger to India, having spent several years here as an India correspondent for The New York Times. He later went on to author a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White,” based on his time reporting out of South Africa and then become the executive editor of The New York Times.
Mr. Lelyveld’s time in both countries helped to push him towards writing about Gandhi, who honed his political activism skills in South Africa before returning to India to lead the country’s fight for independence from Britain. “Gandhi because of the way his life fell out linked the two countries – that was convenient for me as a writing motif,” Mr. Lelyveld said during the discussion.
His book was critically acclaimed, and controversial, but not in the way that he thought it might have been. For those who find it hard to imagine the father of the nation being anything but proud of the country he helped free, this book might come as “a revelation,” according to the author Hari Kunzru in a review.
The Gujarat government, led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, banned the book in the Gandhi home state, claiming that “The writing is perverse in nature. It has hurt the sentiments of those with capacity for sane and logical thinking.”
The perversity being denounced has to do with parts in the book which discuss Gandhi’s friendship with one of his disciples, the German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach. Mr. Lelyveld has since denied the claims that he called Gandhi either “bisexual” or “racist.”
Indeed he has taken it with a grain of salt, calling Mr. Modi, “the great Gandhian” and describing himself in these words, “I am Joseph Lelyveld, who wrote the book on the secret sex life of Mahatma Gandhi.”
Asked during a talk last month about the Anna Hazare movement and the man at the center of it, who has styled himself on Gandhi, Mr. Lelyveld said, “It is hard to imagine Gandhi talking about the importance of slapping people in order to get their attention.”